Mark my words, I am GOING to finish this thing before I graduate from college. (I'm in the middle of winter break right now, and with any luck I'll have another chapter done before I go back to school) Hopefully all my readers haven't died of old age… for those of you still around, here's the next chapter!
Chapter Twenty-Seven: In which uncertainties are resolved
- April 17, 1945 -
Indira Nay awoke to the feeling of warm sunlight on her eyelids and the presence of another person. Both startled her, and she spent a few moments wondering where she was before it came back to her. She was in Tarragona, a small Spanish city near Barcelona, and her head was resting on the bare chest of the man who'd brought her here, Armando Dippet. She smiled, closed her eyes, and impulsively gave his torso a squeeze. A moment later, she felt a kiss on her forehead and familiar hands stroking her shoulders. Her smile grew wider. How she wished they could relive the previous night and stay in this moment forever: a time where they were the only two people in the world and all that mattered. She knew, though, that it could not happen. They were here in Spain for a reason, and that reason was not to be with each other.
"Are we late yet?" she asked lazily, stretching her arms as she did so.
A small smile flickered across his lips. "Almost," he said. "Indira, you don't have to come if you don't-"
"But I do," she insisted. "Please… I don't expect you to understand, but…"
He smiled gently and kissed her again. "I'm so thankful you're here," he said. "I can't believe you're not a dream"
"I can't believe you keep coming back to me."
"Well, Indira, that's what you do when you're…"
Their eyes met, and though the rest of the phrase was stuck somewhere between his stomach and collarbone, the meaning was there.
"Late?" she offered.
"Damn," he mumbled, throwing off the sheets and using a summoning charm to bring his cane over.
As he stepped out of the bed, Indira spoke the same word under her breath in an impressed tone.
It was loud enough for him to hear. "What?" he asked suspiciously, turning his head around.
She was beaming, and blushing slightly. "Nice bum."
"You're late." Raquel Ramirez glanced up from her clipboard long enough only to make the comment about Dippet's tardiness when he was wheeled into the physical therapy wing at San Cliodne.
"I'm sorry," he said, and reached for his cane. "I… didn't get much sleep."
"Because of Indira?"
Dippet turned his head toward her so quickly that some vertebrae in his neck popped. He uttered a series of barely-distinguishable syllables and rubbed his neck, hoping his face didn't look as warm as it felt.
Raquel smiled knowingly. "I'm more perceptive than you give me credit for, Professor Dippet." She set the clipboard down on the counter and walked over to him. "I saw the way you two looked at each other yesterday. And the 'I am going to kill you' look she gave me."
"Raquel, I want to apologize for that," said Dippet. "Indira can be… well… 'difficult' is putting it mildly."
"I gathered that." The Healer walked over to him and extended her hand. "On your feet."
He took her hand, and a quick, strong pull from Raquel an instant later, he was on his feet and leaning on the cane for support. He winced involuntarily when his legs were forced to bear the weight of his body; they were still weak and caused him pain whenever used.
"She is beautiful, though," Raquel commented, returning to the counter to retrieve her clipboard.
"Yes, she is," Dippet said dreamily. Then he snapped to attention and quickly said, "I mean… uh…"
"You mean," Raquel said firmly, "she is beautiful."
She had him trapped. Women were good at that, he'd noticed. "Yes, she is, but she's also cold and distant. Every time I think there's a chance for us, something happens that makes me wonder if I should even keep trying."
"Then why do you?"
"I thought you were my physical therapist."
"I am." She went over to the far end of the room and put her hands on her hips. "Please walk over to me; I need to observe your posture."
Fifteen feet was quite far when one had to endure excruciating pain with every tiny step. He was able to push through it, though; he knew the discomfort was temporary, but even more importantly, he was walking. It was a success – a difficult, agonizing success, but a success just the same.
Dippet kept up the conversation for two reasons; one, because it distracted him from how badly it hurt to walk, and two, because he was curious as to where she was going with this. After surviving Indira's interrogation last night, he wasn't afraid of anything Raquel might say. "I don't know. There are a number of factors," he said in response to her question. "I think I initially justified getting close to her because I was already so deeply involved in… her life."
"The Madeline Rahmini story?"
He stopped, having reached her, but the associated shock would have stopped him anyway. "How did you…"
"It wasn't hard to figure out; I just had to remember where I'd heard the name 'Indira Nay' before. Surely you did not believe the story wouldn't reach all of Europe by now?"
"No, I suppose not." Dippet recalled some of Indira's words from the night before concerning Raquel, and he felt this had to be cleared up before he could concentrate on the work that needed to be done. "Raquel… there is something else."
"Your hip position is good, but your shoulders are slumping. Try it again, and this time, keep your shoulders square." She crossed over to the other side of the room and wrote something on her clipboard.
"Indira seems to think…" He wasn't sure if he should be direct or try to approach the subject in a more tactful way.
"To think what?" Raquel asked. "Shoulders!"
Dippet forced his shoulders back, which his torso fully upright but shot pain down to his toes. Through a cringe, he said, "She thinks you fancied me."
He expected Raquel to laugh or immediately start denying it. She did neither. "Her suspicions are not wholly incorrect," the Healer said quietly. "I won't lie to you, Armando. I did fancy you – briefly."
He stopped walking.
He resumed walking, and she continued to speak. "Call it a crush, if you will. Normally, I am very good at professionalism; I do not overstep any bounds with my patients. With you, though, I sensed potential for friendship."
He could understand how she came to that, for he'd felt the same thing: an almost instant connection. He even found himself thinking that if he wasn't so obsessed with Indira, Raquel might make a suitable partner. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. It wasn't your fault, and believe me, I feel nothing for you that would put me at risk for losing my job." She smiled reassuringly at him, then added, "I only hope that girl knows what she's got before it is too late."
So do I, Dippet thought. So do I.
I need to see you. Meet me in the Transfiguration classroom as soon as you get this.
The note was neither addressed nor signed, but Minerva McGonagall knew both. She also knew the matter in question was of the utmost importance – why else would he insist on a private meeting with her in the middle of the day? – though she did not know to what it could pertain. The damage control she and Albus Dumbledore had been doing in response to the Daily Prophet article had, to the best of her knowledge, been working. The students had stopped talking about it and there had been no follow-up article. Owls had been received from parents wishing to withdraw students from the school, but those had been dealt with by the house heads and no one had yet been sent home.
The other alternative was that the matter was personal.
Minerva feared what it might be in that case. Lately her professor-turned-friend-turned-lover had been acting strangely. He would make eye contact with her quickly and in the most random places – from the classroom to the hallway – and then look away just as fast. Their conversations were short and professional, hovering on awkward. They had been alone together once in the last week, where they had spoken little and kept each other at a distance. Minerva could partly understand why – after all, this was a difficult time for all of them – but she couldn't help wondering if he still loved her or not.
She was standing outside the door to the Transfiguration classroom with the note in hand, staring at the handle, wondering if she should reach out and pull it open. Fear gripped her and her mind began making up scenarios. What if she lost him, here and now, after all they had endured together? What if he considered their relationship a mere fling that had no chance of standing the test of time? What if this was about the difference in their ages, and he was letting her go because he didn't feel they would have much time together? Minerva knew Dumbledore wasn't young by any standards, but he had a good sixty years still left in him. She would rather spend half a lifetime with him and then be alone than to never be with him at all. She knew she was still young, but she also knew that she loved him, deeply and with her whole heart. And she would never stop loving him.
And she would certainly not let him go that easily after what their relationship had just been through.
Filled with new determination, Minerva folded the note into fourths, slipped it into her pocket, and opened the door. The room was dark save for a few candles near the teacher's desk, and they cast a dim light on Albus Dumbledore and the area around him. "Seal the door," he instructed in a low voice.
She closed the door behind her and performed a quick charm to seal it. "Albus, may I ask what this is about?" she asked as she walked up the aisle between the desks toward him.
"Something has come to my attention, a matter of great urgency that must be addressed at once," he said. The flame dancing on the wicks of the candles was reflected in his eyes, enhancing their already desperate gaze that gripped Minerva's heart.
"And… what does this matter concern?" she asked fearfully, stepping up next to him.
He placed his hands on her upper arms and began stroking them with his thumbs. "It concerns… you and I."
She felt her knees go weak and fought to remain standing.
"I have reason to believe Professor Dippet suspects something," Dumbledore said.
"How?" she squeaked.
Dumbledore shook his head. "I don't know," he replied. "He knows we're close – that much is hardly a secret – but… this is my fault, I know it is." He stepped away from her and ran a hand through his auburn hair restlessly. "Mentioned your name one too many times… if only Indira Nay hadn't seen us that day in January…"
"Albus?" she asked cautiously, and touched him on the arm.
He whirled around, seized the hand that touched him, and held it tightly. "We cannot do this any more, Minerva," he said. "These secrets… these lies… Hogwarts is in a delicate, desperate hour, and lying about the most primeval of human emotions only further weakens us from the inside."
"But we can't come forward," Minerva said. "There would be no future for either of us!"
"You're right." With his other hand he caressed the side of her face. "Which leaves us with only one other choice."
A sharp pain stung her heart and eyes as she realized where this was going. Her worst fear was coming true: it was over.
He let go of her and took a few steps away. "I've been wondering how to put this," he said. "I knew it wouldn't be easy, but the most important choices in life never are."
She turned her head away from him so he wouldn't see the tears streaming down her face.
"Minerva, do you remember what happened exactly two months ago, in this very room?"
Her mind was in too much turmoil to remember anything that happened on a specific date that long ago, and even if it wasn't, she was too angry and confused to answer in a civilized fashion.
"Our first kiss."
Albus Dumbledore, you sadistic manticore, WHY are you bringing that up? she thought bitterly.
"We must never speak of this, Minerva," Dumbledore said, turning around to face her. "We have to continue on with our lives as though nothing ever happened, for both our sakes."
"I… I understand," she choked.
"For the time being, at least."
"Minerva, telling the world about us might destroy us metaphorically, but if I were to leave you, it would literally destroy me," he said. "If I so much as think about leaving you, I want to die. I cannot imagine my life without you, and I don't plan on seeing it."
"Then… you want us to stay together?" Joy began to renew in her heart.
"More than anything in the world. All we have to do is keep this secret a little while longer, and then there will never again be a need." He reached for her hands and dropped to one knee. "Will you marry me?"
Tom Riddle was up to something.
That in itself was hardly a revelation. One thing or another was always unfolding inside the Head Boy's diabolical mind, but this was something darker and sinister than previous plots. Paul Garrett could tell, because normally Tom told him whether or not he was working on something. For the last few days, though, Tom had barely spoken to him. In fact, few people had even seen him outside of classes, and when they did, he was either in, on his way to, or coming from the library. Paul was tired of being kept in the dark. If Tom expected him to be an ally, he had damn well better start treating him like one.
Paul decided to start looking in the library. That seemed to be the best place to find Tom these days. Sure enough, there he was in the Restricted Section, hunched over a book he'd had to chain to a table. "Riddle," Paul whispered. When Tom didn't look up, he repeated himself, a little louder and more sharply. "Riddle!"
Tom nearly jumped, as though he'd been caught doing something he knew he shouldn't be – which, Paul hypothesized, was probably the case. "What do you want, Paul?"
"What are you doing?"
"Do we have to talk about this now, Paul?"
Paul glanced over his shoulder to make sure Peter Dorrenbacher, the strict librarian, was out of earshot. "Yes."
"Fine. I could use you, anyway." Tom unchained the book and slammed it shut before it had the chance to bite off his hand, then placed it back on the shelf. A cloud of dust rose up from the bookshelf as he slid it back into its place. Paul was able to read the title on the binding when the dust settled: Magick Moste Evile. "Let's go."
They hurried out of the library, Paul taking three steps for Tom's every two to keep up with his friend's longer stride. "Where are we going?"
"Nay's office," Tom answered in a harsh whisper. "I've got to find something."
Paul wondered what could possibly be in Professor Nay's office that Tom had previously searched for in the library. "What?"
"I'll tell you later."
"You won't be able to get into her office. She seals it."
"I can break it. I've gotten into Turner's and Rose's offices before; how hard could Nay be?"
"Nay could make Turner tap dance on water if she was still alive and beat Rose in a duel blindfolded," Paul replied.
"So could I. Shut up and trust me."
Paul figured that was probably the safer option and did.
They continued in silence through the deserted corridors. Most people were outside enjoying the break in the weather, which had been rainy for several weeks, and the few they did pass in the halls were not acknowledged. When they arrived at the door to Nay's office, Tom told Paul to keep watch, knelt down, and pointed his wand at the lock.
Several long minutes passed. Paul occasionally glanced at Tom; his brow was furrowed and there were beads of sweat rolling down the sides of his face. Finally, he exhaled loudly and relaxed. "Stay here," Tom said, standing up and wiping his forehead. "I shouldn't be long."
He was wrong. Paul stood outside the door on pins and needles of anxiety for the large part of an hour before Tom stormed back into the hallway. The result of the search was obvious. "Now what?" Paul asked. "Let it go?"
"Never," Tom spat. He slammed the door and waved his wand at it. "Just… have to keep looking."
"What are you looking for? I can help you, Riddle!"
Tom looked at Paul for a long moment, and Paul could have sworn he could feel the other probing the edges of his thoughts. "No, Paul," said Tom. "This is something I have to do myself."
Well, Riddle, Paul thought as Tom turned away and began walking toward the Slytherin common room, I am going to find out anyway.
Late that night, armed with a lantern and the Invisibility Cloak they'd stolen from Minerva McGonagall, Paul forced his way into the Restricted Section. He located Magick Moste Evile, took it off the shelf, and carefully placed it on the small table Tom had used earlier. Chains hanging down from the four corners of the table rose into the air with a wave of his wand, and he clipped them to the corners of the book's binding. Paul waved his wand again, and the book opened, snarling softly but otherwise harmless. Though he didn't know what he was looking for, Paul had a feeling he'd know when he saw it.
He spent a good twenty minutes skimming the pages of the book, seeing a few things he found to be quite interesting, but didn't strike him as something Tom would have spent all this time and energy looking for. Then, he came to a page that was less dusty than the others, and Paul guessed it might have seen light recently – perhaps earlier today, even. And then he saw it: one sentence, toward the bottom of the page, so enigmatic and so potentially powerful that he knew this had to be what Tom was searching so desperately to learn more about. His heart pounded as he read it over and over, wondering what secret it held and how something could possibly be too evil to be no more than fleetingly mentioned.
Of the Horcrux, wickedest of magical inventions, we shall not speak nor give direction…